According to one account—one among many—golf was invented in China. This may or may not be true; certainly there are other, better-entreched golfing cultures who might differ sharply with that bit of history. But the game is being reinvented and re-interpreted in China.
The oversimplified version of how golf went from an afterthought to the center of attention in China goes something like this: after the IOC announced the inclusion of the sport in the 2010 and 2016 Summer Olympics, an ultra-competitive Chinese government poured considerable resources into developing a crop of golfers, many of whom start at a very young age. The idea is that what has worked so well for divers and gymnasts could work for golf. Golf is a very different sport, of course, but this is the way China knows best, and time is short.
And so that was all decided. The government handed over access to precious land to ensure a supply of actual golf courses, on which this growing group of golfers would eventually compete, and perhaps become world class. The idea is that these freshly minted golfers would add to the gold medal count that China so obsesses over. It's a way of asserting dominance, but in this case they're after something else—showing that they can create a sports culture, to order and on schedule, and win.
In the previous three Olympic Games, China has finished either first or second in the total medal count. Among those medals, there have been a lot of firsts—first ever gold medal in a track event, in canoeing, wrestling, fencing, archery, sailing and so forth. All of these were accomplished at the past three competitions. It's impressive, but it's not simple.
On one hand, we could view this as a sort of golden age of athletic talent in China. On the other—and the more feasible explanation given what we know about the Chinese and their process of developing Olympic athletes —this is a country that will channel its focus towards the sports it deems important, and will exhaust whatever resources are necessary to get the edge it needs. It has worked in the past, but if it works again here, it will be different.
Where China's previous triumphs in bespoke sports—gymnastics and track, for instance—are at their most popular during the Olympics, golf offers a different opportunity. Golfers, albeit within the khaki confines of the sport, can develop personal brand for themselves—their personalities are part of their appeal, and can create opportunities for a unique sort of personality. Among Chinese athletes, only Yao Ming, and to a lesser extent the tennis player Li Na, have managed to pull this off.
It’s strange to think that in a country of China’s population size and its focus on athletic prowess on the world stage, the most famous athletes remain those coming from the outside. But this is the fact of it. You’ve seen the photos of Kobe Bryant's visits to China; it’s been seen over and over as fading North American athletes finish their basketball careers in China, bathed in a glory they'd long since lost stateside. Despite all its progress and success, China’s own athletes remain only part of the system, incapable of creating their own futures, let alone their own brands.
These athletes are, paradoxically or not, often hamstrung by the government’s assistance. For aspiring golfers—kids as young as seven years old—trying to chase dreams of becoming a professional without the government’s help would mean that parents would have to invest most if not all of their earnings in their child's athletic future. Once enrolled with the government, though, many charges are covered and oftentimes fees are waived as well. There's a price for this, of course—once you’re in the system, things happen on the system's terms, not yours, and there’s a cost for both success and failure.
Which leads us to the second question. Not very long ago, in a different but not so different time, Chairman Mao banned the game of golf outright—along with many other sports, and many other non-sports—as bourgeois and counter-revolutionary. This was 1949, and the ban lasted for more than three decades. Even as the push for golf has begun in earnest, there are still laws within the state that prevent the construction of new courses, for the same old reasons.
And golf is still an elite sport in China, as it is just about everywhere else. According to that Times article, China has an urban per-capita income of about $4,000 per year, yet everything about golf—from clothes and clubs to lessons and greens fees—is far more expensive in China than in the U.S. Perhaps not surprisingly, China’s first pros in the 1990s often came from poor families that happened to work at golf courses as part of the maintenance or caddy crew.
Concerns were expressed as recently as 2009, when critics wondered whether the push for more golf courses created a conflict with President Hu Jintao’s concerns about the widening gap between China's rich and poor. Because China depends on farming to feed over a billion mouths, promoting what is called—and, in a basic sense, actually is—a “land-hungry” game enjoyed by only the wealthy seems not just counterintuitive, but a waste in several different directions.
But that's golf, and honestly not the biggest deal. But there's something here that goes beyond golf, and speaks to a bigger problem and more troublesome tendencies in China. The willful and damaging subsuming of athletes' identities and the equally willful and damaging appropriation of scarce and valuable resources for this latest whim suggest that China's leadership sees golf as another arena in which China can boldy push all their chips into the middle without consideration or concern for its aftermath. There are consequences for this, both for individual athletes and in a more collective extent, that are felt long after the winners and losers have been determined in the competitive arena.
And some serious trade-offs, too. If China is unsuccessful at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, what happens to all the land earmarked for golf courses that would otherwise have been given to the agricultural community? It’s easy to see ways in which, in the long run and otherwise, China's investment in golf might turn out to be a net negative for everyone involved.
These are the same narrative points that most sports tend to touch on: process versus result; whether one justifies the other. Except in this case, both athletes’ lives and a country’s economy may be the collateral damage in this pursuit. China wants to be an athletic superpower; this is not news. The question is how far they're willing to go, and what they're willing to risk, in that pursuit. Although maybe that's not really news, either.